Triple Crown 2009: Check Your Heart at the Door

How do I justify my feelings, about what I know, or what think I know? How can I, in good conscious, help to promote a game I love so much when I know that so much about it is broken?

The burning image that I will take with me, from the Palm Meadows training center in March all the way to Section 3V in the Belmont Park grandstand on a steamy afternoon at Belmont Park on the first Saturday in June, is this:

My best girl, regaled in brown halter top and Big Brown cap, was standing on her seat as Da’ Tara, shadowed closely by Tale Of Ekati and Big Brown, curled into the turn leaving the half-mile pole.

But arm-pumping encouragement suddenly turned into mouth-agape shock: Big Brown was being eased.

For the love of the game, I want to celebrate a training masterpiece by Nick Zito at Belmont Park. And since it’s the second time he’s done this to a Triple Crown hopeful in the Belmont Stakes, I’m assuming he didn’t make it to the Hall on Union Avenue by accident.

There was no quit in Da’ Tara on Saturday, and no fuel in the tank of Big Brown. Zito’s other Belmont entrant, Anak Nakal, finished third. Denis Of Cork, third in the Derby, ran on very well for second in the late stages, but was never a serious threat.

I want to celebrate it all, but the big winners at Belmont Park yesterday were not the people snapping up Big Brown memorabilia.

But had the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals opened a concession, they’d have been sold out before the completion of the late double.

Kent Desormeaux, chased by media all the way back to the jock’s room after the race, said it best: “I saved a horse today.”

Whatever that tells you, you really don’t want to know.

War Pass, the winter book Kentucky Derby favorite forced to the sidelines after his courageous placing in the Wood Memorial, and Cool Coal Man, and Stevil, and Cold Play and now Da’ Tara. So who gets demoted to owner Bob LaPenta’s fifth string this time?

Funny game, horse racing, and not ha-ha funny.

We won’t know what happened to the favorite until the tests are done, all the tests. Dr. Larry Bramlage, who gets a lot more face time on racing telecasts than anyone wants to see, could only guess.

The only thing that made sense to him was that it wasn’t Winstrol-off. “I doubt that [the withdrawal of anabolic steroids] that’s the answer,” said Bramlage. “That keeps him eating, keeps him happy. It might require [extensive] testing, bone scans, MRIs…”

“The only thing I know to do is wait and see how things go,” said the main who knows him best, trainer Rick Dutrow. “I don’t know what else to do to see if anything else is wrong. The horse kind of looks like he’s fine to me.”

Anyone who loves these marvelous creatures are happy to hear that. It’s the bettors who are wondering what window they take that report to. Co-mingled wagering on Big Brown across-the-board nearly reached $10-million, at $9,971,627, according to NYRA statistics, exluding multi-millions more in exotic wagers.

They put their faith not only in Big Brown but in a forthcoming Dutrow and Ian McKinlay, widely regarded as the preeminent authority on patching quarter cracks.

Big Brown’s hoof issues were nothing compared to those of Touch Gold, and he won the Belmont in a Triple Crown upset over Silver Charm.

“On a scale of one to 10, [Touch Gold’s] problems were a 10,” said McKinlay when the hoof issues first surfaced shortly after Big Brown’s triumphant return from Baltimore.

But back at the barn an hour after Big Brown finished ninth of nine,” Dutrow was saying he “really didn’t know how to feel, but the horse looks like he’s fine. Right now we’re trying to figure out what happened in the race.”

Zito was gracious in victory. “The champ, Big Brown, didn’t run his race today. He wasn’t himself. Da Tara was himself.”

Da Tara was himself, indeed, taking a 140-year-old racing classic for his second lifetime victory. Rated along beautifully in front by budding riding star Alan Garcia, he virtually 12-clipped his field throughout, taking a bit longer in that uncharted final quarter of a mile, to reach the finish line in an ordinary 2:29.65, paying $79 straight.

And then the winning Hall of Fame trainer saw the victory in more philosophical terms: “That’s the game,” said Zito. “You keep trying.”

Even when it rips your guts out.

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Brown To Deliver Crown

For Big Brown, and maybe the sport, too, it all comes down to the “Test of the Champion.” By late Saturday afternoon even Rick Dutrow will have stopped talking. The horses will make it the whole way around “big sandy” and of them has a chance to become a part of history.

All the elements are there. Two undefeated rivals, the fastest of their generation, one who came from half way around the world because he was bred for this moment in time. One no longer will be undefeated.

Then there’s Big Brown’s owner, trying to make it from Wall Street to Union Avenue the hard way. And the favorite’s trainer, who’s not only happy to be here but, like the old joke says, is happy to be anywhere.

And the would-be champion’s jockey, haunted by the memory of what happened under precisely the same circumstances, who has a chance to be vindicated, “to put closure on Real Quiet.” But he’s riding for his family now and his family has made him better.

The story will begin to unfold on Saturday at 6:25 p.m. May the best horse win, and may he make history. A handicapper’s perspective of the field for the 140th renewal of the Belmont Stakes, listed in post order with early line odds in parentheses:

1. BIG BROWN (2-5): If you look at his performance figures from the Preakness, he regressed from his Herculean Derby effort. But if you see the figure in the context of the overhead blimp shot at headstretch run, where he opened five lengths in three blinks of an eye, it almost qualifies as a soft win, accomplished without giving maximum effort. And what of the hoof issues? Everything Rick Dutrow has said about Big Brown since before the Florida Derby has been on target. The work of smithy Ian McKinlay with quarter cracks is legendary. If they’re not overly concerned, neither am I. Plugged Nickle won graded stakes with three patched hooves. Slew o’ Gold lost a three-horse photo in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on one healthy foot. No anabolic steroid shot for this race? He doesn’t need it. The feeling is that there will be a sense of déjà vu for Desormeaux as he approaches the top of the Belmont homestretch. Only this time, there will be no coming back to the field, no holding back from Desormeaux. Big Brown, by daylight.

2. GUADALCANAL (50-1): Long on pedigree but short on everything else, including a career victory. Nolan’s Cat was a maiden when he finished third to Afleet Alex in 2005. He cut his teeth on tougher before entering the Belmont. I saw Nolan’s Cat. I know Nolan’s Cat. And this colt’s no Nolan’s Cat.

3. MACHO AGAIN (20-1): Facing serious questions about his ability to go a route of ground successfully, he answered the doubters with a strong runnerup finish in Baltimore as he parlayed his rough-trip Derby Trial score into a classics placing. With nine starts, he clearly is the most experienced runner in the field and appears to be coming into his own right now. Although his Preakness trip wasn’t as bad as Icabad Crane’s, he was forced to steady a long time while awaiting room before angling outside to make an effective rally. Picks up the talented Garrett Gomez.

4. DENIS OF CORK (12-1): The colt has done little wrong and we wish we could say the same for his connections. But the owners misread the bounce theory, almost costing them a Derby starting berth, then passed the Preakness in favor of freshness. We don’t like hypotheticals but it‘s hard to find anyone who didn‘t think that a repeat of his Derby finish would have been good enough for a Preakness placing. Further, it might have had him tighter for today’s grueling 12 furlongs. David Carroll is a good horseman and his colt will be ready for the test. Robby Albarado rode Denis with eerie confidence in his only ride, winning the G3 Southwest Stakes. Major player.

5. CASINO DRIVE (7-2): It’s hard to make too much, positive or negative, of the training methods his connections. Japanese horsemen use methods more closely resembling those of European colleagues, and they have an extraordinary record when leaving home for fertile graded territory elsewhere. Until proven wrong, they have earned the benefit of the doubt. Casino Drive is the second fastest horse in the race going a distance ground among this year’s three-year-olds. His Peter Pan was not only eye pleasing but unusual for a horse giving away tons of experience and recent conditioning while moving way up in class. He has enough pedigree to run to Montauk and back and in Edgar Prado a Hall of Famer whose two Belmont upsets foiled as many Triple Crown bids. Formidable rival.

6. DA’ TARA (30-1): Fifth to Macho Again in the Derby Trial after getting humbled in Big Brown’s Florida Derby, he placed gamely after being pressed throughout in the listed Barbaro Stakes on the Preakness undercard. Since that effort he been training well on the Saratoga training track, those moves touting trainer Nick Zito on a run in the Belmont. He has attracted budding riding star Alan Garcia but is completely out of his element against this group, at this moment in time.

7. TALE OF EKATI (20-1): Poor Barclay. This colt’s first Belmont workout was too fast; the second too slow, but the third one was just right. His fourth-place Derby finish was first rate, racing closer to the pace than any other contender not named Big Brown and still finished with interest. It was his third start of the year after a non-effort in his season’s debut prior to the gritty Wood Memorial score. He’s ready to run the race of his three-year-old season now, has enough pedigree power and his next surface loss would be his first after three tries. Eibar Coa accepts the re-ride on the value play of Belmont 140.

8. ANAK NAKAL (30-1): What was is Nick Zito said about Birdstone before Smarty Jones’ Belmont Stakes? “Birdstone finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby, not eighteenth.” When last seen, Anak Nakal finished seventh, not seventeenth, in Big Brown’s Derby, after being forced to rally very wide into the Churchill Downs straight. Considering the first three finishers dominated, it wasn’t a bad effort at all. The problem is he’s deep closer, very anti-Belmont profile. He’s slow but his Equiform pattern is healthy. Could conceivably fill out the bottom of exotic wagering tickets.

9. READY’S ECHO (30-1): Following an overpowering maiden win at Gulfstream, the colt just missed in a Keeneland allowances before his bold-finish rally for third in Casino Drive’s Peter Pan, making up a ton of ground too late after his usual poor start. Connections have had no qualms about running here instead of the Colonial Derby on turf, noting an in-the-money finish here is of greater value than a victory at Colonial might be. Improving at the right time but, like Anak Nakal, his running style is anti-Belmont profile.

10. ICABAD CRANE (20-1): A winner of three of four prior to the Preakness, the connections of trainer Graham Motion and jockey Jeremy Rose were getting more attention than the colt prior to his Baltimore run. His races were good but extremely slow and he would need to jump up big time to be a Preakness factor. He did. While no match for Big Brown, a rough trip arguably cost him second money. He came out of Pimlico better than he went in, earning a starting spot in the final jewel. But he’ll have to jump up big time again; possible but highly improbable.

Most Probable Winner: Big Brown

Most Likely Upsetter: Casino Drive

Best Projected Money Finisher: Denis Of Cork

Best Value Play: Tale Of Ekati

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Desormeaux Seeks Closure, Place in Racing History

ELMONT, NY, June 4, 2008--Jockey Kent Desormeaux has been dreaming about what Belmont Park at 6:25 p.m. on Saturday will be like for months.

“I wish it were tonight,” Desormeaux said following Wednesday’s post draw at Belmont Park. “I’m anxious to find out my destiny.”

Those dreams were about what you might expect: How the race will be run, how the rider might react in various situations, knowing what time was the right time to make a winning move.

Of course, there’s more to Desormeaux’s subconscious than that. He’s been in this precise spot once before. “I’d like to put closure on the Real Quiet situation,” he said.

When asked about the 1998 Belmont Stakes, Desormeaux said he asked Real Quiet for his life at the top of the stretch and that he got it, opening what appeared an insurmountable lead before losing it in the last jump, on the bob of Victory Gallop’s head.

“I was gut wrenched,” was how Desormeaux described his feelings. “I felt nauseous, heart broken.” Then later added “I learned a valuable lesson that day.”

And so he’s been dreaming about a second chance ever since. Instead of shooting to the front, opening a lead in a hurry, this will be about “getting a horse slowly into stride.”

It is ironic that this same kind of reflective homework by a rival had as much to do with Real Quiet’s defeat as it did with Victory Gallop’s triumph.

When Gary Stevens took the mount on Victory Gallop for that year’s Preakness, he was told by the colt’s connections to lay closer to the early pace than Victory Gallop did when finishing second in the Kentucky Derby. And Stevens rode to those orders.

“We were in front of Real Quiet [in the Preakness] then Kent just moved up and blew right passed me,” Stevens remembered. “But I saw that Real Quiet lost his focus once he made the lead.

“I told them you’ve got to let me take [Victory Gallop] back in the Belmont. It’s the only way we can beat him.”

Desormeaux saw that outcome a little differently. He was roundly criticized--unjustly in our view--for moving prematurely at headstretch, ironically at the exact point that Desormeaux got winning Derby and Preakness moves from Big Brown.

“The difference between Real Quiet and this horse is that Real Quiet wore blinkers. He never saw Victory Gallop coming. That absolutely was the difference. Three jumps after the wire, we were a length in front again.”

Whether it was the blinkers, or whether it was one of the most perfectly timed late rallies in Belmont Stakes history, Gary Stevens had Victory Gallop in front at the only spot that strategy could work--the moment the photo-finish camera clicked. And Desormeaux’s been thinking about that moment ever since.

“I’ve been daydreaming,” he said. “I imagine how this race will be run, how I would react to the situation.” So what does he think would be a perfect scenario?

“Me in front, after a half in fifty-two.”

Desormeaux was kidding, of course. No one can picture a scenario like that even with a dearth of early speed in this Belmont, Big Brown’s rail draw, and with his major rival, undefeated Japanese star Casino Drive, nicely positioned in slip five to shadow the favorite‘s every move.

And shouldn’t he be concerned that rivals will target him by applying needless early pressure, trying to trap him in close quarters on the rail--not always the liveliest portion of the Belmont strip?

“You want to be inside on this track, save as much ground as you can before making your move. It’s laid out differently than any other track in America.”

As for the bulls-eye on his back, he outwardly appears unconcerned that he’ll be unfairly targeted. “I just can’t imagine that any of my peers would act that way.

“It was a different room a few years ago,” he added, an oblique reference to the premature-move tactics of two riders in the Smarty Jones Belmont of 2004 won by Birdstone.

As the racing gods would dictate, Edgar Prado has the mount on Casino Drive. Prado had the mount on Birdstone and Sarava, who foiled War Emblem’s Triple Crown bid in 2002 as the longest price winner in Belmont Stakes history.

Parenthetically, recall that Prado came under heavy criticism from Rick Dutrow for his premature Preakness move, one that appeared to many as being more about the defeat of Big Brown than the victory of Riley Tucker.

A decade has passed and now Desormeaux says the difference between the man who rode Real Quiet and the one who will ride Big Brown on Saturday is the education and maturity he gained in between. It’s a notion that rang true when he talked about what winning the Triple Crown would mean personally:

“This is a very big deal, and it’s a bigger deal at home. I’m riding for my family. My family has made me a better person and a better rider. This would mean the world to me, to make history, to never be forgotten.”

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